Digitizing Megan's Law

You could know some important things about 31-year-old Timothy Fontaine without meeting him: his street address, his physical characteristics, that he's got four tattoos on his left and right arms, and that he served a year in prison for first-degree rape. All this information, including a photograph of the burly Fontaine himself, is free and publicly available at North Carolina's online Sex Offender Registry (sbi.jus.state.nc.us/ sor), which launched this month. If you actually called him, you'd discover that he has four children, has been through therapy, and has been married for 12 years.

"We got on the Internet the other night and saw the database and his photograph there--yeah, it's pretty sad," says his wife, Michelle. "That was a confusing time--but I don't want anybody to think it's not a part of our lives." Except that now, the legacy of a crime committed eight years ago is not only part of their lives, but of anyone's who chooses to pump the registry for information. In launching the database as an open online resource, North Carolina has transformed what was once a local security measure into a subtle inquisition. "A registry is good, but this is the wrong way," Timothy Fontaine says. "Who knows who picks it up and could harass us. I don't care what people think of me, but I do care how they treat my family."

North Carolina's database of 2200 offenders is just one of at least seven state registries now on the Net, and others are far more detailed. Alaska's registry provides the offender's current employer when available, and the Kansas database indicates the specific crime committed--from criminal sodomy to indecent solicitation of a child. (North Carolina gives only general descriptions.) The creation of the registries was sparked by two Federal laws--the 1994 Wetterling Act, which requires states to maintain an updated registry of the whereabouts of all sex offenders, and 1996's Megan's Law, which requires them to make the information public.

In North Carolina, getting access to this information wasn't nearly so easy before the online registry. Those interested in learning if a sex offender lived in their area could only request information from the local sheriff's office, and needed both a specific offender's name and a reason to do the search. "The intent of the law is just to give community notification to the public so that they can be responsible adults and educate their children and keep a better eye open," says Nancy Kiesenhofer of the Division of Criminal Information, which oversees the database. "This is a service that has long been needed by the public." As of last week, the site was searched over 200,000 times.

At the same time, a registry this public could pose a threat to the idea of community itself. "There are serious concerns about what people do with this information," says Deborah Ross, director of the North Carolina affiliate of the ACLU. "There's no oversight, and there's no specific rules about how to use it--that's where we will get into the problems of improper identification and vigilantism." The experience of the Fontaines bears this out. Back when they lived in Massachusetts (where the crime happened and where Fontaine served time), the family received a death threat. "It was devastating," says Michelle. "We knew exactly who it was, and though the law makes it clear you can't harass anyone with the information, that won't stop anybody."

Even a loose examination of the registry reveals serious flaws. Most glaringly, the database is supposed to list only those criminals either convicted or released after the ratification of the state's sex offender registry law in January 1996, yet Fontaine was released six years ago. North Carolina's State Bureau of Investigations doesn't guarantee the accuracy of the database's information, and is considering removing Fontaine from the online registry as a result of the Voice's investigation.

The registries themselves presuppose the much contested idea of high recidivism rates--that once a sex offender commits a crime, he is likely to repeat it even after a jail term. Echoing these fears, Ken LaCorte, who runs the California database sexoffenders.net, refers on his site to unnamed studies that show 40 per cent of California's 63,000 sex offenders will be arrested for another sex crime. The California database includes gay men convicted of consensual sodomy in the 1950s and underaged youth nabbed for consensual sex, according to a recent issue of the law journal the Federal Sentencing Reporter (published by the University of California). But LaCorte's stats run contrary to the findings of the journal, which lists a variety of studies--by the Office of Canada's Solicitor General and independent researchers--that put the recidivism rates for sex offenders between 10.9 per cent (for those who have gone through psychiatric treatment) and 18.5 per cent (for those without it).

The passing of Megan's Law drew critical attention to the risks of violence against children, but online registries like North Carolina's walk a fine line between civic duty and "exploiting paranoia," says the ACLU's Ross. "One would hope that law enforcement would enforce the law against vigilantes and harassers of sex offenders as much as they do against sex offenders themselves." But with their past on public display, it's hard to believe these offenders will ever be granted the gift of privacy. "I've got four kids and I understand it's a safety thing," Michelle Fontaine says. "But [my husband's] grown up since then."

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